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Gender Inequality: At home and in the market!

16 Mar 2011

UNRISD Research Coordinator Shahra Razavi’s International Women’s Day Lecture, “Gender Inequality: At home and in the market!” at the International Development Research Center (IDRC) on 8 March 2011

The title of my talk, as some of you would have noticed, plays on one of the key slogans of the women’s movement in Chile during the early 1990s after the fall of the military dictatorship: “democracy in the country and in the home”.

The demand of the women’s movement in Chile was for the democratisation of the private sphere —the right to divorce, reproductive rights, access to abortion, equal inheritance rights and so on—as an integral part of building a democracy in a post-authoritarian context. Like women’s movements in many other countries and eras, they queried the artificial divide between “the private” and “the public” and argued that it is not possible to have democracy in one (the country) without the other (the home). In making their radical demands for the democratization of the private sphere Chilean feminist confronted many opponents, including the powerful Catholic Church and its allies … a long story in itself that I am not going to go into today.

The pervasive nature of gender inequality

What I would like to query today though is this artificial divide between “the public” and “the private” but with a different purpose in mind.

“Gender inequalities at home and in the market”, points to the importance of seeing gender not just as a form of inequality that is produced and reproduced within the so-called “private” institutions of family and household --- but also one that is very much part of the public domain and its institutions, most notably markets and macroeconomic flows.

Drawing attention to the social and gender content of markets and macroeconomic flows will not probably upset the Catholic Church or religious fundamentalists (in the way that “private sphere” issues like abortion do!) but it will probably irritate another genre of ideologues (“market fundamentalists” as they used to be called).

I make this point purposefully here because in the kind of narratives on gender that we get from the mainstream economic establishment gender inequality is invariably seen as a feature or outcome of micro-level institutions, like households discriminating against daughters in their spending patterns, OR the outcome of “traditional” or “customary” practices like patriarchal lineages discriminating against women in the distribution of land. (See the 2001 WB Research Report, Engendering Development, or the 2006 WDR on Equity and Development as good examples of this genre of thinking.)

All of these things do happen of course in many contexts and a lot of feminist research over decades has gone into showing this: excess malnutrition among girls in north Indian states (literature of the 1980s on excess female mortality in South Asia), or chiefs and elders discriminating against women in land allocation in Uganda or South Africa.

BUT there is silence when it comes to markets and macroeconomic flows (trade, capital)—the implicit assumption being that markets are essentially benign and gender-neutral. Land markets, for example, have been enthusiastically embraced as a solution for women smallholders in Africa and elsewhere, with little recognition of the gender-specific constraints that women face in mobilizing resources to purchase the land and then to keep it productive. Trade liberalization is very often seen as an essentially benign process that creates employment opportunities, for women in particular, without mentioning the production and employment that is often displaced (small enterprises) when cheap imports invade a country and make entire sectors of an economy unviable (knitting and garment industries in South Africa, where many women were displaced). Nor is there any recognition that women’s incorporation into the workforce—as wage workers, self-employed farmers, or entrepreneurs may be on very adverse terms (discriminatory wages, adverse working conditions, no social protection and so forth).

In short, there is little recognition that in the process of economic development and change there are always “winners and losers”. What a lot of heterodox and feminist analysis has shown is that markets are in fact “bearers of gender” … here markets are seen as social institutions within which gender norms and structures are embedded and reproduced in very modern, commercial and industrial societies.

In a 2010 flagship report that UNRISD launched, Combating Poverty and Inequality, we brought together a very rich set of data on labour markets across three different development paths (“developmental states” of East Asia like Republic of Korea; dualist economies like Brazil and South Africa, and agrarian economies like India and Kenya) along with data from a wide range of developed welfare states. What this shows is that while gender inequalities in terms of labour market participation may be narrowing (as more women join the workforce), gender inequalities have emerged in other forms:
  • unemployment rates are rising for women and in many regions and are higher than men’s
  • informal employment (that is work that has no social protection) as a proportion of total employment is higher for women than for men
  • hours of work are lower for women than for men (due to their unpaid work responsibilities to which I will return later)
  • wages/earnings are lower for women than for men
  • access to own earning is more constrained for women than for men (micro level research).

The question therefore is not about how development and growth (or modernization) weaken gender inequalities that are “left-overs” from backward and traditional (read patriarchal) societies, but also about the contradictory impact of capitalist development itself in all its varied forms: it may be emancipatory at some level (factory wage as opposed to work on the family farm may loosen parental control over daughters), BUT other forms of gender inequality often emerge or are reproduced, sometimes in very new forms (gender hierarchies inside factories, the discipline of factory work, gender gaps in wages).

2. Structural change and alternative development trajectories

But the UNRISD report also elaborates the possibilities of alternative approaches—an approach in which it is not the market that dominates but the governance of markets.

The report identifies some countries in the world that have been trying to pursue this alternative approach of governing markets rather than being dominated by market forces. These countries have placed the accent on managing international trade (and their “strategic integration” into global markets) rather than simply liberalizing trade. They have also managed flows of finance around the world rather than simply liberalizing financial markets. Their priority has not been simply to reduce budget deficits and inflation rates, but instead their development strategy was focused on industrial transformation, structural transformation of their economies and “catch-up”, as well as creating employment and managing social tensions through particular forms of social policy. In these countries, particularly in East Asia, such as Korea and China, there has been massive reduction in poverty and in the case of Korea, fairly low levels of income/class inequality.

However, the report also shows that the development trajectory in some of these countries with spectacular growth and structural transformation was not adequate for addressing gender inequality. In the case of Korea, for example, economists like Stephanie Seguino have shown how women’s low wages, roughly half those of men, were a stimulus to growth as women’s low wages kept the costs of exports down, financing the acquisition of technology. Gender inequality was effectively built into the growth trajectory.

So as Diane Elson puts it, “it is not simply a matter of saying there is an alternative development path; it is also a matter of saying that the alternative paradigm itself needs to be transformed”. The report shows that in countries that have tried to govern markets as well as in countries that have pursued neo-liberal strategies, there are similarities in what has been happening to women’s livelihoods. We see in most of them, rising female participation in labour markets as I just mentioned; but also highly segmented labour markets with significant gender gaps in wages (rapid growth of non-standard work in Korea where women are predominantly located). We don’t see a rising female share in those kinds of jobs that provide living wages and social protection; and of course, jobs that provide a living wage and social protection are not the ones that are growing throughout the world.

We also see the problem that neither policy regime, has until very recently, paid any explicit attention to women’s unpaid work. Both the neo-liberal approach, and the managed market approach, take women’s unpaid work for granted. I will return to this point later.

3. Poverty or gender subordination?

The analysis that we have done with household data sets for these countries in the UNRISD flagship report on poverty essentially shows that working poor poverty rates increase as one moves from formal to informal employment (see chapter 4 of the report, Table 4.4)—which is what we would expect given all that has already been said and written about labour informality.

GENDER: But when it comes to gender we have an apparent paradox: even though women everywhere have weaker labour market attachment and lower personal earnings than men this is not always reflected in working poor poverty rates. Why is this so? This is largely due to income pooling within the household and the fact that having women earners may reduce the risk of poverty. This is for example the case in Brazil, where despite women’s labour market disadvantages, working poor poverty rates are generally lower for women than for men.

But in South Africa we find the opposite trend: women’s labour market disadvantages ARE reflected in their higher rates of poverty—which can be explained by the fact that households in which women are the sole or main earner are far more prevalent in South Africa than in Brazil, given the very high rates of male unemployment and the legacy of the migrant labour system which continues to shape marital and living arrangements (‘absent men’).

I would like to draw four simple points from this analysis:

a. Despite all the critiques that have been made for nearly thirty years of the unitary household model, at the end of the day, to measure income poverty we are still stuck with data that uses the household as the unit of analysis. The working poor poverty rate is measured at the household level and like all poverty estimates suffers from having to work with household-based data. It inevitably makes heroic assumptions about how income is distributed within the household. It cannot therefore capture gross inequalities in intrahousehold resource distribution … which can leave some members of poor or non-poor households in a state of severe deprivation in terms of food intake and access to health care.

b. Having said this, the mitigating effects of income pooling are nevertheless real in many other contexts and many women are able to escape income poverty by living in households with higher-earning men. However, as many women know only too well, escaping poverty through “intrahousehold transfers” often comes at a very high cost in terms of women’s personal autonomy and ability to exercise “voice” and “exit” (leaving abusive relationships for example is difficult if you rely on the male breadwinner for your livelihood and have no source of income to fall back on.

c. Some women do in fact end up with the “exit” option (whether of their own choosing or not). Yet we also know the relatively high incidence of poverty among households with children that are maintained primarily by women (mothers and grandmothers) without male support. As the evidence from several countries in Latin America (Uruguay and Argentina) and Africa shows, it is among the lower-income strata that the presence of such households is particularly high. A similar pattern can be seen in South Africa if race is used as a proxy for social class. There may be certain advantages for women of forming such households, in terms of greater decision-making power, freedom from violence, or more control over assets. It is nevertheless a constrained choice which leaves mothers in the difficult position of having to both earn a living and care for their dependents, in contexts where income-earning opportunities are limited, family networks already strained, and non familial support systems often underdeveloped.

d. The larger point I am trying to make is that gender subordination is not just about poverty (women being the poorest of the poor) – it is a power inequality that afflicts even those who are not poor, and the critical issue is how to strengthen women’s real options and strengthen their entitlements both to decently paid work/income and to social rights that can socialize some of the cost of the unpaid work that they do and for which there is no monetary reward.

4. Unpaid care work: Who cares? Who pays?

But let us now go back to the home … because what happens in the home has a lot to say about whether one can make it to the market, for how long, with what level of energy and “human capital”.

Care is commonly thought of as the activities and relations involved in meeting the physical and emotional needs of children and adults (whether able-bodied, ill or frail), structured by relationships of family, kinship and community, and carried out on an unpaid basis. This is one central component of the care economy, unpaid care sector. It is a highly feminized domain: the bulk of this work is carried out by women, even as women are increasing the time they allocate to paid work. It is also an “invisible” domain—it is still not counted as part of the GDP, and invisible in representations of the economy that inform policy making. BUT when it is counted (there are methods for doing so) it becomes clear that unpaid care constitutes a significant share of the GDP.

In the UNRISD project on care, that IDRC co-financed, time use survey data for developing countries was analysed (by Debbie Budlender) to show what we all probably suspected: that much of the burden of this work falls on women’s shoulders, especially women in lower income households who cannot easily substitute their own time with hired help or ready-made substitutes.

The point of counting women’s unpaid work is NOT to suggest that this work should necessarily be paid (wages for house work)! What it does intend to do is to underline the need for policies and programmes—both social and economic—than can socialize or share the cost of care-giving across society because we all benefit from care and not just the person who receives it (or gives it).

As Nancy Folbre has persuasively argued because care work has benefits that extend beyond the individual directly receiving the care (public good), market mechanisms do not always work to effectively provide the quantity or quality of care we need. As she put it half mockingly in a recent NYT blog ‘Parents aren’t just raising adorable kids. They are also producing little human capital units that are likely to grow up, get jobs, pay taxes and raise little human capital units of their own’..

So how do you do this? In advanced welfare states there are a range of policies in place, which sometimes work in a fragmented manner: paid leave and allowances: fully paid parental leaves (ideally shared between parents), credit in pension systems for those who are on care leave, child and family allowances; infrastructure and technology (water and sanitation, domestic technology) to reduce the burden of unpaid domestic work; and enabling social services (health, primary education) to complement unpaid care-giving, as well as specialized care services for young children (early childhood education and care, elder care). None of these preconditions can be taken for granted in a developing-country context.

A growing part of care work takes place in the public domain … in the community creche, the public hospital, or personalized care in one’s home carried out by the domestic worker or the nanny who is paid “out of pocket”, or the elderly carer who visits a few hours and may be paid by elderly care insurance or by a non-profit organization. It is an important component of the “service sector” and in many countries it employs a larger proportion of the labour force than the manufacturing sector. It is also a growing source of employment (especially for many women).

As many have argued care work constitutes a highly productive “social investment” which expands human capabilities and “reproduces” a labour force that is fit, productive and capable of learning and creativity. But market mechanisms do not always work to provide the quantity and quality of care we need. There are therefore strong arguments for having public investment, public financing and regulation if not delivery of care services.

In other words, policy makers have a high stake in promoting care arrangements that are professional and decently paid. This requires effective regulation and monitoring by states. Organizations of care workers and of care-users also need to be involved in order to build public confidence in such services and sustain their financing.

At the present juncture of crisis, and post-crisis adjustment in many advanced welfare states, we may indeed be at the “tipping point” where fiscal austerity is in danger of undermining some of the gains of the past decades—in terms of social rights more broadly, and women’s rights more specifically as cuts are made to public sector services and welfare budgets.

A recent report by the UK Women’s Budget Group (UK Women’s Budget Group, 2010) makes sobering reading. It shows that the “record cuts to the public sector services and welfare budget announced in the Spending Review impact disproportionately on women’s incomes, jobs and the public services they use. Viewed as a whole … the cuts represent an immense reduction in the standard of living and financial independence of millions of women, and a reversal in progress made towards gender equality.” (p.1).

The WBG’s detailed analysis shows that:
  • The groups that will suffer the greatest reduction in their standard of living due to cuts in public services are lone parents and single pensioners, the majority of whom are women;
  • The cuts will lead to hundreds of thousands of women losing their jobs. 53% of the jobs in the public sector services (care services) that have not been protected from the cuts are held by women and the pay and conditions of employment of all public sector workers, 65% of whom are women, are likely to deteriorate.
  • Cuts in welfare spending will disproportionately fall on the finances of women. Child Benefit is paid almost 100% to women; while 53% of Housing Benefit claimants are single women. Both benefits have been cut significantly in real terms and eligibility has been tightened.

The government’s stated intention is to “simplify the welfare system, increase incentives to work, and reduce ‘dependency’ on the state. But its plans will have the opposite effect for many women, and do not address the barriers to women’s employment arising from their caring responsibilities. Indeed women’s caring responsibilities will increase as women are likely to be the ones to fill the gaps where public services have been cut”.

So liberalization policies, economic crises and policies of fiscal restraint are as much about gender as domestic violence and reproductive rights. What we need is gender equality not only in the home but also in the market!



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.